Event-related brain potentials reflect discourse-referential ambiguity in spoken-language comprehension
SourcePsychophysiology, 40, 2, (2003), pp. 235-248
Article / Letter to editor
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Donders Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging
SW OZ DCC CO
F.C. Donders Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging
SW OZ NICI CO
In two experiments, we explored the use of event-related brain potentials to selectively track the processes that establish reference during spoken language comprehension. Subjects listened to stories in which a particular noun phrase like "the girl" either uniquely referred to a single referent mentioned in the earlier discourse, or ambiguously referred to two equally suitable referents. Referentially ambiguous nouns ("the girl" with two girls introduced in the discourse context) elicited a frontally dominant and sustained negative shift in brain potentials, emerging within 300-400 ms after acoustic noun onset. The early onset of this effect reveals that reference to a discourse entity can be established very rapidly. Its morphology and distribution suggest that at least some of the processing consequences of referential ambiguity may involve an increased demand on memory resources. Furthermore, because this referentially induced ERP effect is very different from that of well-known ERP effects associated with the semantic (N400) and syntactic (e.g., P600/SPS) aspects of language comprehension, it suggests that ERPs can be used to selectively, keep track of three major processes involved in the comprehension of an unfolding piece of discourse.
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